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Super Sad Super Crunching—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on November 17, 2010.

Super Sad Super Crunching
By Ian Ayres ’86

Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, paints a compelling but amazingly bleak picture of a future ravaged by the twin evils of predictive analytics and texting. Following the truly prescient Snow Crash, his characters are obsessively plugged into their “äppäräts,” souped-up versions of today’s app phones. (One of the funnier lines occurs when one character makes a disparaging reference to another character’s outmoded hand device, saying: “What is this, an iPhone?” (Kindle 1244).) Here is a world where credit scores, eHarmony-compatibility predictions and rankings are ubiquitously at hand. Characters routinely choose the reality of the shadows on their screen over the real world.

One result of the technological transformation is the decline of the ability to read sustained pages of text. Our future selves can only be bothered to absorb tweet-length narratives dominantly geared toward consumerism and sex. This very newspaper has morphed into “The New York Lifestyle Times,” which is “no longer the fabled paper of yore, [but] it’s still more text-heavy than other sites, the half screen-length essays on certain products sometimes offering subtle analysis of the greater world.” (Kindle 1847). The protagonist is a social outcast in part because he is one of the last humans to read printed words. His girlfriend’s friend is not impressed: “So he REALLY, REALLY READS instead of scans. Big whoop.” (Kindle 2612).

Here is an impoverished newspeak that is not dictated from above but evolves from text speak. (“Ha ha. This is what her generation liked to add to the end of sentences, like a nervous tic.” (Kindle 1813).) What makes the novel’s accomplishment more impressive is that it is written not from the omniscient third-person perspective, but is a concatenation of the characters’ own texts, emails and diary entries –indirectly disproving by its own example that the text speak is unable to richly convey the characters’ depth of emotion.

Snow Crash dazzled by imaginatively forecasting the distant future. In contrast, what I find so chilling about Super Sad is how near at hand our society might be to certain features of its imagined future. I’m not so concerned about the move from paper to ebooks, but as I write this short blog post, I am somewhat frightened by our increasing preference for brevity.

If, like me, you are a fan of predictive analytics, this novel provides useful food for thought.